The Affective Labor of the Eisenhower Chart: Who Can Delegate? (And What Part of Dissertation Writing Is Urgent?)

As an academic often struggling with motivation and time-management, I frequently read articles on organization and procrastination. I usually don’t go “hunting” out for them, but rather the internet panopticon “suggests” them to me. (This makes me wonder if somehow Firefox has an opinion on the progress of my dissertation, but that is neither here nor there.)

Today I stumbled upon this newsletter in the New York Times: Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks. Great, I thought as I read this, this might be perfect for me. I do have a bad habit of occasionally using time cordoned-off for writing for: (1) more researching, (2) typing out bibliographic entries, (3) refining outlines that don’t really need to be refined, and (4) organizing my digital files. Sure, these things aren’t bad to do, and they are all helpful things that I will eventually need to do. But they all seem less critical than writing. Additionally, I tend to do these tasks when I am particularly nervous about a portion of my writing and would rather do anything else than face the blinking cursor.

The article discusses the “urgency” factor of various tasks: tasks that need to be done relatively quickly. For many people, these tasks are much easier to complete than long-term, boundless tasks.

The author, Tim Herrera, suggests using an Eisenhower planning box to chart out which of your tasks are important, unimportant, urgent, and non-urgent. Herrera links to this visual, created by James Clear.

The simple grid plots things like “watching TV” in “Non-urgent” and “unimportant,” meaning you should remove these things from your life. (Who wants to remove pleasure from their lives?) “Writing an article” falls into “urgent” and “important”, meaning that you should do the item immediately. “Exercising” and “Talking to family and friends” are deemed to be “non-urgent” yet “important,” and time should be scheduled to do these.

The box that shocked me the most is the box labeled “urgent” but “not important.” Here are the items that fall in this box: Scheduling interviews, booking flights, sharing articles, answering certain emails, and approving comments. The course of action for these is, bafflingly, to delegate.

Who on earth can delegate all those tasks? Almost exclusively people with personal assistants or secretaries?

What are those of us without secretaries supposed to do?

Looking at other examples of Eisenhower grids, I noticed that some of them replace the term “delegation” with “delegate or avoid.” Even more perplexing. Certainly we can’t avoid these kinds of tasks!

In an earlier post I talked a bit about affective labor – generally understood as labor which deals with managing and manipulating the emotions and affectscapes of others. Looking at these horrid Eisenhower grids I thought of all the administrative assistants, secretaries, and personal assistants who are performing this huge amount of affective labor. What if they looked at this grid one day and saw that the bulk of their work was considered “unimportant”?

I don’t think it’s bad or unethical to have an assistant or to outsource some of one’s labor. I even don’t think it’s a problem if you frame that box as unimportant for me to do–I.e., it may not be unimportant for the head of a company to reserve rooms for meetings themselves, but very significant for her to make public statements on behalf of the company. Sure, fine, whatever. Optics are necessary. But the labor itself isn’t unimportant.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Before fully realizing my hatred of the Eisenhower chart, I tried to create one on the side of my to-do list for today. I do often need tools and systems to help me recognize which tasks are more critical for me to complete quickly and which can be put off to another day.

I found it a bizarre experience.

What part of writing a dissertation is urgent? I do have a deadline coming up in a month, which is quickly approaching… but it is still a month away. While that’s a short period of time for academics, it feels like a long period of time for most people using Eisenhower Charts.

I half-heartedly put my writing goal for today in that box. I did achieve it, so that was good, but the entire experience left me with the a bad taste in my mouth: the lingering feeling that in our late-capitalist society the work I do will never be particularly urgent or important.

And yes, yes, of course people will say that the entire point of the Eisenhower chart is to choose what things are important or significant for you and for your life, but let’s not beat around the bush here. What kind of tasks are deemed unimportant by the examples here? Almost entirely tasks historically performed by women. Maybe there’s no reforming the Eisenhower chart to make it fit into a radical politics that values all kinds of labor. Better, maybe, to leave it in the past.





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